James Cameron’s Avatar sequels won’t use High Frame Rate

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Walking out of the early screening for Gemini Man, in relation to people talking about how weird the movie’s 60 frames per second High Frame Rate I made a now-fortuitous comment to Sam. I mentioned that Ang Lee’s action-thriller may just be the new Avatar. Not in terms of story or commercial success, but in how James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi mega-blockbuster dragged the industry kicking and screaming into a new age with the 3D technology that has now become commonplace. Could we see Gemini Man’s pioneering use of HFR be embraced just as much?

Well, no. Definitively no, it would seem, as not even the star power of lead Will Smith could stop Gemini Man from tanking at the box office, with the film currently on track to post a potential loss as big as $75 million. However, maybe HFR just needed a better vehicle, a movie not as by-the-numbers as Gemini Man, to sell it. A movie like maybe one of Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequels? If executed well, that could definitely be the turning point for the use of HFR just like with 3D a decade ago. The problem is that not even Cameron is sold on it.

The acclaimed filmmaker took time out of filming the Avatar sequels in New Zealand to attend a recent roundtable Q&A as part of the press tour for Terminator: Dark Fate. During the session, Collider‘s Steve Weintraub posed the question of using HFR to Cameron, but the filmmaker gave a fantastic answer to explain that the tech is a great solution to certain filmmaking problems, but won’t be using it for his films.

I’ve seen some clips from Gemini Man. I haven’t seen the picture yet because I’m down here in New Zealand. I’m interested to see it. I mean, I have a personal philosophy around high frame rate, which is that it is a specific solution to specific problems having to do with 3D. And when you get the strobing and the jutter of certain shots that pan or certain lateral movement across frame, it’s distracting in 3D. And to me, it’s just a solution for those shots. I don’t think it’s a format. That’s just me personally. I know Ang doesn’t see it that way. I don’t think it’s like the next 70 millimeter or the next big thing. I think it’s a tool to be used to solve problems in 3D projection. And I’ll be using it sparingly throughout the Avatar films, but they won’t be in high frame rate. But I am curious to see what they came up with.

I agree fully with Cameron in that there are cases where HFR looks and works incredibly well, particularly with those wide moving shots. And also when it comes to fully CG created characters, just like in Gemini Man. But there are also a lot of other scenarios where HFR is distracting and very off-putting as it almost looks too real. Asking the press in attendance about how HFR looked in Gemini Man, particularly underwater action scenes using lots of digital effects, Cameron continued.

Well, this is the thing. To me, the more mundane the subject, two people talking in the kitchen, the worse it works, because you feel like you’re in a set of a kitchen with actors in makeup. That’s how real it is, you know? But I think when you’ve got extraordinary subjects that are being shot for real, or even through CG, that hyper-reality actually works in your favor. So to me, it’s a wand that you wave in certain moments and use when you need it. It’s an authoring tool.

I still think we will eventually see HFR become more commonplace, and with enough exposure, it will lose a lot that weirdness. 24FPS has been the de facto filmmaking standard since the 1920s so it’s understandable why it’s so ingrained in us that it looks right. However, the format was actually chosen to help modulate audio rather than video after the silent film era ended, so there’s no technical reason why that standard can’t be changed. Just don’t expect that to happen anytime soon though, and definitely not via the Avatar films. Now if Cameron can get that glasses-free 3D tech working in time for his movies though, that would be awesome.

Last Updated: October 23, 2019

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